The Quarrel over Ong-Bak: Muay Thai vs Kun Khmer
Updated: Jan 27
In January 2003, the Thai martial arts film Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior marked a breakthrough for Thai martial arts on the world stage. The film, directed by Prachya Pinaew, featured unique Thai-style stage combat and claimed to use real action without any stunts or special effects. Starring Tony Jaa, with a budget of just USD 1 million, the film generated USD 3 million in Thailand alone and a worldwide box office of USD 20 million.
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The plot of Ong-Bak centers around an unknown Thai martial artist. In the rural northeastern village of Ban Nong Pradu, there is an ancient Buddha statue named Ong-Bak. When thieves from Bangkok decapitate the statue and take the head, the village falls into despair. Ting, a skilled practitioner of Muay Thai, volunteers to travel to Bangkok to recover the stolen head of Ong-Bak.
It's worth noting that the film's backdrop is heavily influenced by narrative such as from anthropologist William Klausner's reflections on Thai culture. Klausner spent a year in the northeastern village of Nong Khon in 1955, where he lived as a temple boy and later rented a house. This experience led him to dedicate his life to studying and understanding the complex culture and society of Thailand, and acted as a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures. Klausner's work highlighted the traditional culture of Nong Khon, which was starkly different from the fast-paced, cosmopolitan lifestyle of Bangkok.
The plot of Ong-Bak reflects the narrative of the loss of traditional Thai culture, represented by the theft and destruction of the Ong-Bak statue's head. The film portrays the villain as wealthy and cruel, who hires foreign fighters for underground illegal gambling business, and doesn't shy away from depicting the darker aspects of Thai society such as the underground economy and drug trade, in contrast to the modern, luxurious façade of elitist lifestyle in Bangkok. It should also be noted that massage parlors are a "regulated" aspect of the sex industry in cosmopolitan cities like Bangkok and Pattaya, but is officially denied.
The film Ong-Bak uses symbolic imagery to convey its message, such as the scene in which the protagonist, Boonthing, uses a front thrust kick in Muay Thai against a Western fighter's face who disrespects the art form by showing his middle finger and saying "f**k Muay Thai". This serves as a symbol of the protagonist's defense and respect for his culture and traditional practices. Similarly, when Boonthing declares his Muay Thai technique, บาทาลูบพักตร์ (Ba-tha-loop-pak), it is also a reciprocal insulting act, as in traditional Siamese belief, the holy spirit is said to reside in the human head. In Thai tradition, the foot is seen as a low and mundane thing, in contrast to the head, which holds the high, holy, natural spirit called ขวัญ (Kwan).
Since then, Muay Thai has been respected as one of the most efficient martial arts used in real combat. Unlike Japanese Judo or Jiu-jitsu, which were later adopted as Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and widely practiced in full-contact combat sports like MMA, focusing on one-on-one and ground fighting techniques, Muay Thai is known for its ability to handle multiple opponents and its emphasis on fierce kinetic attacks to quickly take down opponents. This is particularly useful in real-life battles, which often involve more than one opponent. Muay Thai is also featured in console games such as Sagat in Street Fighter. There is a dispute over whether Sagat Petchyindee, a real-life Muay Thai boxer, is the inspiration for the character Sagat. However, Sagat's fighting style is quite similar to that of the famous Buakaw Banchamek, or vice versa.
Currently, there is a dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the origins of their respective martial arts, Muay Thai in Thailand and Kun Khmer in Cambodia. Cambodians claim that Muay Thai originated from Kun Khmer, and are seeking to have Kun Khmer recognized as an official sport at the upcoming Sea Games, which will be hosted by Cambodia this year. The Thai International Federation of MuayThai Associations (IFMA) and its affiliate, the US Muay Thai Federation, have successfully promoted Muay Thai and been recognized by the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee, paving the way for its official inclusion in the Olympics. In response, IFMA announced that it will ban countries that send athletes to participate in Kun Khmer at the Sea Games this year.
Recently, Cambodia has been seeking to promote its own martial arts, such as Kun Khmer and the more ancient form of Pradal Serey, as a powerful form of soft power. The movie Shadow Master, featuring DY Sao, an American of Cambodian origin who practices Kun Khmer, is currently gaining popularity in Cambodia. The movie is similar to Ong-Bak, which is not surprising considering that Prachya Pinaew, who directed Ong-Bak, also helped direct Shadow Master. However, it should be noted that in Thailand, Muay Thai has several sub-forms, such as Muay Boran (ancient martial art), Muay Chaiya (Chaiya martial art), or Muay Korat (Korat martial art), for example. Therefore, the monopolization of the name does not reflect the reality of cultural diversity. Furthermore, both Thailand and Cambodia have been influenced by Indian culture, particularly from southern India, such as Chola or Pallawa. Although the Khmer Empire had a significant influence in mainland Southeast Asia during the 8th - 14th centuries, Thailand or Siam has ancient traditions rooted in the Davaravati culture of the 7th - 11th centuries, which was a loose federation of city-states similar to ancient Greek leagues such as the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League.
There is no clear data on the recent economic value of Muay Thai, but it is widely accepted that it relates to the Thai tourism industry, which can generate revenue of around USD 3 billion. There is an effort to promote Muay Thai in the digital space, such as Muaythai Iyarin, which is expanding its business by rebranding its Muaythai Iyarin App and driving Muay Thai into global markets through the implementation of augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), and blockchain technologies, with the strategic aim of becoming a super-app catering to digital lifestyles. It is being achieved through partnerships and joint ventures, targeting over 3 billion Thai Baht in revenue for Muay Thai businesses. The recent Thai finance minister, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, has promoted the "5F strategy" of Food, Fashion, Festival, Fighting, and Film at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, with Fighting referring to Muay Thai.
Despite the architecture of ASEAN, Thailand has had sporadic disputes with its neighbors over border issues. In January 2003, a Cambodian newspaper article falsely alleged that Thai actress Suvanant Kongying claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. This led to further nationalistic sentiments in Cambodian print and radio media, resulting in riots in Phnom Penh on January 29th where the Thai embassy was burned and commercial properties of Thai businesses were vandalized. The most recent dispute is the Cambodian-Thai border dispute, which began in June 2008 surrounding the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple in the Dângrêk Mountains between Choam Khsant District, Preah Vihear Province of northern Cambodia and the Kantharalak District, Sisaket Province of northeastern Thailand.
It should be noted that in December last year both sides have discussed possible cooperation to make use of energy resources in the overlapping claim area (OCA) as a solution to energy shortages. The Thai cabinet had an informal discussion on the realization of joint development of petroleum resources estimated at 5 trillion baht (USD 150 billion). If the dispute over martial arts is not handled appropriately, it may affect the OCA project.
Correction: We have corrected the terminology from "front kick" to "front thrust kick" to accurately describe the technique used by the protagonist in the movie.
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